Natalie Z. Davis

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Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Natalie Z. Davis 1928-

(Full name Natalie Zemon Davis) American novelist, historian, essayist, and critic.

The following entry presents an overview of Davis's career through 2002.

A pioneer in the field of social history, Davis is known for her reconstructions of the lives of ordinary individuals—merchants, artisans, and peasants—in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe. Her best-known books are Society and Culture in Early Modern France (1975) and The Return of Martin Guerre (1983).

Biographical Information

Davis was born Natalie Zemon on November 8, 1928, in Detroit, Michigan, to Julian Leon and Helen Lamport Zemon. Davis credits her father's example for her own decision to become a writer; a prosperous businessman in the textile industry, he had an impressive library and wrote plays for amateur theatrical groups and for the USO during World War II. Davis attended public elementary school in her suburban Detroit neighborhood and a private girls' high school, Kingswood, where she was one of two Jewish students in her class of 30. After graduation, she enrolled in the history honors program at Smith College where she became active in a number of left-wing political groups. In 1948, a year before her graduation from Smith, she eloped with Chandler Davis, a graduate student at Harvard who came from a family of New England Quaker left-wing intellectuals. Although his parents both earned Ph.D.s, the family had little money, in contrast to the Zemon family, who disapproved of the match. Although she risked expulsion from Smith for marrying without permission, Davis was nonetheless permitted to graduate with her class, earning a B.A. in history. The next year, she received an M.A. from Radcliffe and accompanied her husband to the University of Michigan where he taught mathematics and she pursued a Ph.D. Their activism against the Korean War drew the attention of the House Un-American Activities Committee and resulted in his dismissal from the university and imprisonment for six months in the federal prison at Danbury, Connecticut. During this time, Davis taught at Brown University, the first of many teaching posts she held during her career.

In 1952 Davis made her first visit to France and the following year she completed her doctoral exams; she received her Ph.D. in 1959. Meanwhile, the couple had three children: Aaron, Hannah, and Simone. Blacklisted at universities in the United States, Davis's husband joined the faculty at the University of Toronto in 1962 and the family relocated to Canada. Davis began teaching at the University of Toronto a year later. In 1971, she accepted a professorship at the University of California-Berkeley, and in 1978 became the Henry Charles Lea Professor of History at Princeton University. She is currently professor emeritus at Princeton and adjunct professor of history at the University of Toronto. She maintains homes in both Toronto and Princeton, New Jersey.

Major Works

Davis's works combine rigorous scholarship with popular appeal and tend to blur the distinctions between various disciplines, particularly history and anthropology, as well as the distinctions between various literary genres, particularly social history and biography. She concentrates on the lives of common people rather than the elite; typically her subjects are artisans, laborers, minor clerics, and peasants rather than aristocrats or bishops. Her first book, Society and Culture in Early Modern France, is a collection of essays on subjects ranging from the collective movement among journeyman printers, to the establishment of an agency for poor relief, to the effect of religious change on urban women. The work established Davis's reputation as a pioneer social historian. Her next effort constituted her most popular success. After serving as a consultant on the film Le retour de Martin Guerre (1982), a fictionalized account of a sixteenth-century peasant who left his village and had his identity assumed there by an imposter, Davis wrote...

(The entire section is 1,347 words.)